Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Council Hears Plan For Senior Center At Eckersley Hall

The Common Council heard extensive details of a plan to convert the St. Sebastian’s School into a combined Senior Center and Municipal offices during a workshop meeting last night. The plan would also provide space for a Veterans Center to house war artifacts and provide public education on veterans.

Following a presentation by City Planner Bill Warner and architect Tom Arcari, most of the council members expressed their support for seniors and veterans, and some raised questions about the timing and cost of the purchase and renovations, and the method of financing.

The Eckersley Hall Building As a Senior Center
What is now known as the St. Sebastian’s School building was actually built as a neighborhood school in the 1870s to serve the children of the Durant neighborhood. It was named Eckersley Hall after World War I, to honor two Middletown residents who died in that war. In the 1970s it was purchased by the St. Sebastian church, but the city retained the right (“of first refusal”) to purchase the two story brick building if it were ever to be used for non-educational purposes.

When the diocese closed the school in 2009, the Finance and Government Operations Committee decided against recommending the purchase of the school at its then list price of $1.3M. However, at its June 1st meeting, the Senior Service Commission initiated a discussion of using the school for the senior center. At a special meeting on July 14th, the Commission reported that most of its members had toured the Eckersley Hall Building with architect Thomas Arcari. From the minutes:
The general consensus is that the building is good and solid but will require renovations. Estimated cost for purchase and renovations is $4 Million.
The Senior Services Commission voted at that meeting to move forward with this new site for a Senior Center.

Warner’s Plan.
After a preliminary evaluations indicated that the school might be suitable, the Common Council authorized Warner to spend money on “Due Diligence” to more thoroughly evaluate the building and to determine the potential renovation costs. After a title search, an environmental assessment, a commercial building inspection, a roof evaluation, a hazardous building materials investigation, and an appraisal, Warner said that the only things that would absolutely have to be done to the building were to make the bathrooms and the second floor accessible to the handicapped.

Warner said that the building was appraised at $980,000 on November 19th, considerably more than the $800,000 which the diocese is asking from the City. He reported to the Council that with minimal effort and an already available $240,000, the first level could be renovated for a senior center, “It’s essentially almost move-in ready.”

Warner introduced Arcari, whose architectural firm Quisenberry Arcari has designed Senior Centers in several different municipalities. Arcari presented to the Council a “Ideal Plan” to illustrate how the building might be more extensively renovated to provide an ideal Senior Center and Municipal Office building. Arcari said this “Ideal Plan” would have a total cost of about $1.7M for renovations, with $1.4M of this coming from the hard costs of adding an elevator, replacing heating and air conditioning, and extensive renovations. The image below shows a concept plan, which is simply a tentative sketch of one possible design.

Warner argued that the actual cost of the “Ideal Plan” could be about 25% lower than Arcari was projecting, because the heating system did not need to be replaced, the elevator could be more modest, and the bids would likely be very competitive in today’s economy. He estimated the actual cost to be about $1.2M.

He proposed financing these renovations primarily with three sources of funding: LOCIP, CDBG, and a general obligation bond. LOCIP and CDBG are state and federal grant programs which the city has in past years used to fund municipal projects such as fire station roofs and low income housing. Warner argued that it was appropriate for a Senior Center to “receive priority” for a couple years of LOCIP and CDBG funds, much as other city projects have also received such priority in other years.

Warner told the Council that the $800,000 purchase price could come from an advance payment on recently negotiated bonds for other municipal work. Finance Director Carl Erlacher and Mayor Sebastian Giuliano elaborated on this, saying that this was money that is set aside for use in reducing the cost of a future bond issuance, but in essence could be used instead of issuing a bond for this purchase.

Warner closed by saying that the key to the success of the project was to “Build excitement about a project that is providing for those who so richly deserve it, our seniors and our veterans.” He suggested that a Building Committee be established, “with strong Council leadership.”

The Council Questions.
Councilmembers Phil Pessina, Jim Streeto, and Ron Klattenberg praised Warner and offered him and architect Arcari opportunities to further promote the plan. Councilwoman Hope Kasper raised questions about the cost of heating and cooling the building, whether the building was on a list of EPA mandated clean-up sites, and the potential cost of lead and asbestos removal (Warner said he would soon have answers to those questions).

Councilman Tom Serra, echoed by Vinnie Loffredo and Grady Faulkner, expressed concern over the plan for financing the purchase and renovations. Serra said he was leery of adding to the budgetary pressures by spending the money that was already available, “I’m not comfortable with this.” He expressed his desire to issue new bonds to cover the costs of the project. When reminded that any bond issuance greater than $750,000 required a referendum and voter approval, Serra indicated that there were ways around this, “I’m suggesting creative bonding, we’ve done it before.

What’s Next
The Finance and Government Operations Commission will discuss the purchase at their meeting this evening (5:30, Room 208). The full council could consider the purchase at its meeting on Monday (December 6th, 7PM), or postpone consideration until their January 3rd meeting. Both the F&G and the Council meetings set aside time for public comments.

If the Council approves the purchase, the owner of the property (the Diocese) would then apply to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a permit for the use of the building by the government, a use which is only allowed in residential zones by special exception. Warner told me he would propose applying under the historic adaptive re-use provision of the zoning code, which would make approval easier to obtain.


Christine O'Grady said...

Shouldn't this eventually go to referendum because it is over $500k?

Anonymous said...

This should go to referendum and let the tax payers decide, but as usual as stated by Mr. Serra the council could circumvent what the tax payers want with creative bonding, is that like creative accounting which caused the problems with Wall Street? They want to take care of the church, which most of the council belong to including the Mayor. If you try to ram this down our throats I vow to get the votes needed for a referendum. I guess we the tax payers are too stupid to make a decision that’s why they do not want a referendum. REMEMBER YOU WORK FOR US NOT ST. SEBASTIAN!

Anonymous said...

Referendum could be avoided through the implementation of "creative bonding".

Mr. Fixit said...

A) The present site has parking for 18 vehicles and, it's a hike (particularly for Seniors)to the bus line. Nearby street parking is very restricted/limited.

B) With the site scheduled for use by three organizations (Seniors, Veterans and City Employees), what are the plans with regards to accomodating PARKING for all these folks?

C) Why does the city have to bail out the present owners? Let this decision be made by the voters as well as authorizing the projected expense/s (which will grow - per usual)

D) What becomes of the grandiose plans for the Sr. Center in Veterans Park???? More $$ thrown away!

E) Has anyone queried the Seniors with respect to their wants and needs with respect to the proposed Sr. Center site? If so, I'd like to see those surveys made public. Their input is more valuable than that of all the actors involved so far in this "project".

Anonymous said...

I don't notice any costs associated with transportation for the residents of Sbona Tower to the proposed new senior center. The accessibility of the current senior center is critical to the lives of many those senior residents. Our town leaders need to begin figure out how our taxes can be reduced, not increased. The loss of the Aetna property will be a significant hit to our tax base.

Anonymous said...

I oppose moving the senior center. While the center may be for all seniors, more affluent seniors have many options. Many seniors in Sebona Towers do not have those options. The convenience of having the center next door enables many to find friendship, enjoy day trips, and develop hobbies. Unless a bus runs frequently, which would be expensive, those seniors would not be able to enjoy the senior center.

Man of the town said...

So should we stay in a building that is not owned by the city and is not meeting the senior's needs. Something needs to be done. Cost wise this looks like the best solution for the senior center and Middletown Military Museum.

Anonymous said...

The senior center is not meeting the needs now. What makes you think that will improve if the center stays at the present location.

Remember there are many seniors though out the town that have to be bused in now for events and activities. The town has to serve all the senior community not just those that live nearby.

Anonymous said...

Isn't city hall (mayor,etc.) accusing the BOE of creative accounting? Do what I say, not as I do?? Let's use money ear marked for another project and spend it on this one! Are you kidding me??

The other 40,000 residents of Middletown can't afford a tax hike right now. Plain and simple.

Perhaps Aetna can build a new building for this project as an apology for leaving our tax base in such dire despair.

I'm all for a senior center, but this isn't the right place. I'm sure Middletown has other buildings available that are more suitable.

Fred In Westfield said...

The only thing the Mayor and the council is doing is finding a way to duke the taxes payers out of a million dollars. They should be ashamed of their actions. They gave us a tax raise by not revaluating our properties because they could not act as responsible members of our goverment

Anonymous said...

We have many more needs in this resolving the tax issue then to be spending money to bail out the mayor and half of City Hall's church. The building has little parking, no disability access, no bus line, isn't convenient to senior housing (Sbona, St Lukes, etc). AND given the expense every tax payer should be allowed to vote as opposed to the creative bonding proposed. If this goes thru there will be a huge outcry from those of us on fixed incomes stressed already by a tax burden

Anonymous said...

Amazing...In these tough economic times, the City decides to take on yet more property to renovate and maintain. This cannot possibly be an immediate or serious need. We already have a senior center. Do we really think this is a priority now? I don't.

Anonymous said...

Awe man this is a no brainer and it wont cost the city a dime. Plus it will be payed off in 4 years. All the mayor has to do is scrap the new illegal police scheduale and use that money for this purchase. Everybody wins !!!!! To heck with the cops didnt they get enough with that 10k a year and 15k as a retro check ? Nuffs is Nuffs. My taxes went up higher in this mayors year administration than any other administration prior in the 42 years I have owned my home.

Mr. Fixit said...

ATTN: Bill Warner

According to the Middletown Press article on this subject today, you were quoted as stating, '"I don't think I've heard from anyone that this isn't a good project," Warner said.'

The Press also mentioned that "Arcari and Warner revealed that a marketing study to evaluate if Middletown's senior citizen population would use the center HAS NEVER BEEN DONE."

There are plenty of questions about this questionable project. I suggest you read the "Middletown Eye" and check out all the mostly negative comments on this subject.

Additionally, the Press reported, "Founded in 1944, St. Sebastian School closed a little more than a year ago. After its closing, the Finance and Government Committee voted unanimously against purchasing the school, as it seemed apparent that the building is too small; not handicap-accessible and in an inconvenient location, particularly for senior citizens."

WHAT HAS CHANGED? Has the Finance and Government Committee had a change of heart and bought into the present proposal???

Stop this stinko project now!

KS said...

Fixit: Its not Warner's responsibility to read this blog or to respond to comments posted here (or any other news media). Yes he should be in touch with these things but he is not required to. If he states he has not heard objections from the public, that's because presumably nobody has called him on the phone, visited his office, or sent him a direct email or letter about it. And lets not forget showing up at the public hearings. If you wish your objection to be officially registered that is what you need to do. This blog is a public forum, not a method of direct communication. You need to address the correct people directly and with professionalism in order to have your voice considered in the official process.

David Bauer said...

Just a comment on bonding and referenda in the City of Middletown:

The Charter has been changed so that the bonding exemption for going to referendum is now $750,000. The one wrinkle is that there has to be two hearings before the Council on any borrowing between $500K & $750K.

Concerning the $800,000 purchase of St. Sebastian's School, only Council approval of the contract and the expenditure is necessary. A referendum is required only if a purchase/project requires borrowing greater than $750K. In theory, if Middletown had the spare $110,000,000 for the new MHS in its General Fund, there would have been no need for a referendum on the new High School.

The City has engaged in creative borrowing for so long now, I feel that the voters have spoken on the practice. They have returned the creative financiers to office over and over.

I believe that we pay a special Bond Counsel over $500 per hour to cover the legality of slicing our projects to get under the Charter limits. My complaints about this issue and especially how Road Bond funds are spent has drawn nothing but extreme ennui from everyone else on the Council and City Hall.

Sorry if this process makes you unhappy now, you should have known who and what you were voting for.